In mid-March, I wanted to bake a pecan pie and subsequently discovered there were no eggs in the house. I put my plans on hold and added eggs to my store list for the next day. After some investigation, there were apparently no eggs in Easton, at least I couldn’t find any. In fact, there was no bread, no chicken, and there were no potatoes to be found. I’m not even going to broach the disappearance of toilet paper.
Bare shelves can be unsettling because it signals the possibility of indiscriminate food insecurity – not just for those who can’t afford it. Whether our wallets are full or empty, if the product is unavailable the problem is equally systemic for all. When eggs returned to my refrigerator a few weeks later, I was, in a sense, relieved. I never realized how much I used eggs until I didn’t have any. Inconvenienced by the momentary disappearance of eggs, I was required to adapt my meals, eggs or no eggs.
Born of necessity, or perhaps from desperate times, kitchen frugality might once again find its place in America. Forced to become intimately acquainted with our own kitchens and examine our eating habits in the mirror, quarantine has provided us a means of self-reflection in the daily habits of all things culinary.
It is during these times that I have thrown scrutiny upon myself and, in doing so, have channeled the wisdom of family cooks that came before me. Cooks that toiled over their stoves in uncertain times, cooks that made the best of what they had, cooks that creatively adapted to what was available instead of lamenting over what they did not have. Our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers’ kitchen wisdom need not be lost but, instead, rediscovered and embraced.
When I think of my mother and friends’ mothers I am humbled by the memories of a Sunday spent reviewing the grocery ad specials for the week coupled with earnest coupon clipping and developing a grocery store list that was only what was needed and sticking to it. I called a few of my friends to discuss their mother’s kitchen habits, and they reminisced about lessons learned in limited, yet happy and sustaining kitchens. Their reflections were presented in a way that reminded me of one opening a dusty filing cabinet and perusing the tabs. I stretched their memories and a nostalgic mist enveloped them. For the next week I received thoughtful and reflective texts that proved a wake-up exercise to rival our reconditioned modern lives.
Thus, this will be a two-part series reviewing the art of kitchen frugality to complement our current uncertain economics.
The number one mantra of all frugal cooks is to “Never Waste Food.”
I called up a close childhood friend for this one. One of seven with a stay at home mom, Mrs. Watson was a marvel at kitchen frugality. She let nothing go to waste. During a family dinner of lasagna one night, my friend’s father remarked that the lasagna tasted like fish. Mrs. Watson jubilantly shouted, “you found the fish stick!” She had tucked the one leftover fish stick from the night before into the lasagna. Bonus! Although, you may not go this far, here are some ideas:
1) Always eat the leftovers.
2) “Take what you like but eat what you take.”
3) Be thoughtful with how much you purchase and prepare.
4) When it comes to fresh items, only buy what you can eat before it goes bad.
5) Rotate items in your freezer and eat them before they get freezer burned.
6) Keep the refrigerator clean and organized. This way items won’t get “lost” in the back.
Speaking of leftovers, you will save energy by cooking enough for two meals at once – provided you have concrete resolve to eat the leftovers. On leftover night, Mrs. Watson had her seven children pick numbers from a hat. Number one got first pick of the leftovers, and so on. Needless to say, child number seven always got the leftovers nobody wanted. However, it helped them recognize you can’t always get what you want.
With some planning ahead, a whole chicken is a great example of how 100% utilization of a food can be achieved. Boiling a chicken creates broth that you can strain off and use later to make soup (you can also do this with potato water). If you are roasting a chicken, the drippings can be used for gravy or also added to soup. If your family doesn’t eat the whole chicken at one meal, it can be picked clean and used for another dish the next day like chicken salad, chicken stir fry, chicken pot pie or chicken soup, to name a few. If you roasted the chicken first, the carcass can be boiled along with carrots, celery and onions to make bone broth.
To repurpose is to put into practice active creativity. To be effective at repurposing you have to look at an item, not as how it should be used but how it could be used. This requires us to awaken our creative ingenuity. Back in the 1970s, we reused plastic bread sleeves to line our galoshes.
1) Stale bread and the ends of bread make great stuffing or bread pudding.
2) Browning bananas can be frozen and used to make banana bread.
3) Reuse unfinished water in your water bottle to water plants.
4) Fruits on the edge can be made into preserves, jams, jellies, and compotes.
5) Reuse your plastic take out containers to share a meal with a neighbor.
6) Compost your kitchen scraps; tomato plants love compost.
7) Save the bitter ends of your bar soaps. They can be placed in a mesh bag and swirled around in hot water for hand washing dishes. Or, they can be jammed into an empty liquid soap dispenser, add water and you now have hand soap.
8) Reuse or recycle bottles, cans, bags, newspapers and such. Some store-bought spaghetti sauces come in mason jars. Clean and save them for canning.
9) Plastic egg containers make awesome mini greenhouses.
On that note, maintaining a vegetable garden is great way for a family to practice frugality and sustainability. In fact, in the garden is where frugality and sustainability intersect. According to the National Gardening Association (NGA), a 600 square foot garden (average size garden for American households) on which households spend on average $70 a year can potentially yield 300 pounds of fresh produce valued at $600. Currently, one in three households have food gardens. According to NGA, the largest increase in the number of food gardeners by age for the years 2008 to 2013 were households ages 18 to 34. Yes, younger generations are returning to the garden. Reasons to garden abound: gardening saves money, and a garden produces better quality and better tasting fruits and vegetables. But be warned, unintended consequences may include more family time, more time outdoors, teaching children and reducing our carbon footprint.
Sometimes produce will ripen all at once and this is where canning and freezing are essential, so you reap your harvest all year long with little waste. Sometimes the garden can get ahead of you; weeds pile up and plants die. A compost pile is a great way to recycle garden waste.
Beyond growing their own produce, many people are trying to raise their own chickens for eggs, meat or both. According to National Public Radio (NPR), while interest in raising back yard chickens has seen an upward trend in the last decade or so, the Coronavirus has accelerated this interest. All of these activities are not only frugal, but components of creating a sustainable food system on your own property.
As I write from my home office, it is fitting that I complete this article today, April 26, on my mother’s birthday. Although she passed away many years ago, her lessons in the kitchen sustain me and I revisit my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen wisdom often. Their teachings have not been suppressed by modern convenience, but instead ever more cherished and revered during this time of pandemic.
Activities such as gardening, creating a sustainable food system on your property, actively repurposing and raking in wastefulness can take a tremendous amount of time and energy to learn and to master if that is even possible, as I believe in the garden we are always the student. How often do we lament over the loss of family time in the modern era? How often do we wish we could budget better, cook better, eat more healthfully, and eat as a family? While the circumstances of the time we live in are grave, for many, time at home has been returned to us. Best we use it wisely, as it will undoubtedly be time well spent.
In my next column, I will discuss making your own food, ingredient substitutions, utilizing what we have and smart buying.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Depression Era Chocolate Cake
Just because you don’t have eggs or milk doesn’t mean you can’t have cake! Try this depression era cake when eggs, milk, and butter were scarce.
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
1/2 cup of cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup of vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla
2 TBS white vinegar
2 cups cold water
Preheat oven to 350. Combine ingredients and pour into ungreased 9×13 pan. Bake for 50 minutes. Icing alternatives: dust individual servings with powdered sugar or drizzle Hershey’s chocolate syrup over top.